I am convinced we’ve misunderstood the poison that is envy. We tend to think of envy simply as a desire to have what we do not already possess. I want that new iPhone, or I need that promotion. In fact envy is much more insidious. Envy is not concerned with having, it is concerned with depriving. It is this hatred of what another person has that destroys relationships.
Envy thrives on comparisons. Whenever we begin to measure our own worth, success, intelligence, appearance, wealth, etc. by that of another person we are on our way to envy. If someone is prettier than us, smarter than us, more well read, better liked, or has a nicer car we become angry. We become angry particularly at the person, frustrated that they have more than us. Comparisons are all about establishing ourselves better, more important, than others. When we cannot attain that confidence we see to “level the playing field.” Since we cannot usually level the playing field by self-elevation, we attempt to level it by degrading those who have more than us.
When envy has taken root we find ourselves, as Thomas Aquinas said, “sorrowful for another’s good.” Our own despair and disappointment lead to criticism and diminishing the worth of others. We cut people down and seek to make their accomplishments or possessions either less meaningful or irrelevant in the light of other weaknesses/failures. So, if someone is smarter than me, and I become envious of them, then I seek to diminish their intelligence (“they were just able to afford a better education,” “they know a lot about ____, but I bet I know more than them on other subjects,” “they’re just ‘book smart’”). If that does not satisfy my critical spirit, then I will shift the focus (“they may be smart, but all those smarts haven’t helped him work out his marriage problems,” “there is no denying that he’s intelligent, but he’s really awkward in normal social settings”). The goal is ultimately to devalue the qualities they possess that I want. It’s not merely a desire to have those qualities; it is a desire to take them away from another. Cornelius Plantinga helpfully describes envy saying:
[envy is] a motive that prompts people to slice up other people’s reputations, to disparage their achievements, to minimize their virtues, to question their motives, to challenge their integrity…and, failing other ways of bringing them down, to kill them.” (Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be, 157)
One hardly needs help, then, seeing just how destructive envy can be to relationships.
The envious person can never fulfill Paul’s command to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). In fact envy does the exact opposite. It rejoices over people’s sorrows and weeps over their joys. Envy will ruin every relationship. Cain does not take joy in his brother’s acceptance before the Lord, nor does he seek to change his sacrifices, instead he kills his brother (Gen. 4). King Saul does not rejoice in David’s victories, but instead becomes enraged at the people’s love of David (1 Sam. 18). The Pharisees see Jesus heal a man and become “wild with rage” (Luke 6:11). Envy always leads to destructive relationships. It produces a spirit of criticism and cynicism in us that will drive everyone away, cause us to hate and belittle everyone around us, and seek to rob others of every joy. Ultimately envy destroys us as much as our relationships. Leslie Vernick wisely notes:
Envy may destroy another person; unchecked, envy will always destroy you. It is a poison that courses through your veins and will transform you into a resentful, bitter, hateful person. Your mission in life will be to tear others down. (The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, 98)
The envious person will, then, become not simply a miserable and hateful person, but an isolated one too.
The cure for envy begins by recognizing that this is not simply something that happens to us, it is part of who we are. Jesus tells us plainly that envy comes from within the heart (Mark 7:20-22). Dealing with our envy is not simply an issue of getting off Facebook and Instagram. It’s not merely an issue of averting our eyes from the temptation to lust after another’s possessions. It is about addressing what’s going on in our hearts. Envy, then, isn’t just about comparisons it’s also about something much deeper. It’s about discontentment and distrust.
The envious person is dissatisfied with the life he has and does not trust in the goodness of the God who gave him that life. In the moments when I am most prone to envy, I find myself disappointed that someone else has what I feel I deserve. I am also frustrated that God allowed them to have it and not me. So, I think to myself: why did my home sit on the market for two years and then sell for significantly less than I paid for it, while so-and-so’s home sold immediately for more than it was even worth! That is not simply a frustration with life’s circumstances; that is a frustration with God. “Why did you give them that benefit, God, and withhold it from me!” The cure and corrective to the envious heart, then, is the gospel. The gospel is both the reminder of God’s goodness, and the demonstration of true humility.
Peter counsels us well on this point. He tells us to “put off” envy and “put on” humility. We read:
So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:1-3)
We are to “put away…envy.” We are to truly repent of envy and to stop giving into that temptation. But this is more than just the simplistic advice of “stop it.” There is both a call to proactive replacement, here, as well as a submission to the goodness of God. Brian Hedges says:
Dealing with envy…involves all the disciplines of repentance: recognizing and acknowledging the sin, confessing it to the Lord, trusting his forgiveness, and taking proactive steps to replace the horde of envy-related sins (comparison, complaining, criticizing, ingratitude, and hatred) with the virtues of gratitude, contentment, and love. (Hit List, 43)
Peter’s counsel is not simply, “stop comparing yourself to others.” Rather, his counsel is to pursue and drink deeply of the spiritual milk of God’s goodness. Increase your belief in the goodness of God. Meditate upon it. Think upon all that God has given you, not the least of which is His beloved Son. Meditate upon the gospel and remind yourself, as Paul urges us to, that “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things” (Rom.8:32). See and trust in the goodness of God that you may endure your disappointments without giving over to envy (see also Psalm 84:11).
See also, however, the model of Jesus. Peter continues on, not telling us simply that the gospel is evidence of God’s goodness, but telling us that in it Jesus models humility for us. Christ is the “living stone rejected by men” (v. 4), who came and died to serve sinful man. Hedges adds:
Christ shows us both the goodness of God’s love and the pattern of self-giving humility that seeks the good of others. Love and humility are embodied in Jesus. This is the medicine that heals our envious hearts. (44)
Paul says it with significant weight as well, connecting our humility to the example of Christ. He writes:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:3-8)
Christ models the kind of humility and service of others that we are to demonstrate. To cure an envious heart we need to seek out tangible ways to put the interests of others first. That, however, only comes as we see and value the goodness of God demonstrated to us in the cross. The gospel is our overall cure. Envy destroys others in order to take away what they have; in the gospel Jesus allows himself to be destroyed in order to give to others what they need.